Africa’s Catholic Explosion

Ghanan Cardinal Peter Turkson is one of the leading voices in the Church in Africa.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, archbishop of Cape Coast, Ghana, is one of the leading voices of the Church in Africa.

There are now nearly 150 million Catholics in Africa, 14% of the global Church population. The 59-year-old Scripture scholar, who speaks eight languages, is the first cardinal from Ghana.

Register correspondent Greg Watts met him during his recent visit to London.

How do you see the difference between the Church in the West and the Church in Africa?

The system of being a Church in the West is different to our system of being a Church. Parishes have a different meaning in Africa. We have two priests who live at a central residential station and who serve sometimes 20 or 30 villages or outstations.

What is the place of the Church in African society?

When Christianity arrived, it often came in a close relationship with the various colonial powers. Therefore, right from the beginning, the kind of evangelization that emerged was linked to development: education, health, sanitation and all of that. These were the means through which a number of churches were established. They built schools and hospitals and used them as means of evangelization.

In Ghana, for example, there are places where people will tell you, “For us, our government is the Church.” They see the Church as the provider of all the basic needs of life. The government recognizes this role the Church plays in education and health and so on.

How closely does the Church work with the government in Ghana?

In Ghana, the best schools are Christian — either Catholic, Anglican or Presbyterian. The last census revealed that eight of the top 10 secondary schools were Catholic. The Catholic Church provides 38% of all health facilities in Ghana. This makes us a big partner with the government.

Some regimes have considered our influence in schools to be too strong, and they have tried to curtail it. At present, we have a system that recognizes our place in education, but the admission procedures are strongly state-controlled.

How important is education in the Church’s mission?

The Church exists for human development, over and above proclaiming the Gospel. In the past, the popes have said that evangelization and human development go hand-in-hand. The Church seeks to help people live decent lives.

Is there a danger that Africa could follow Europe in becoming a secular society?

I think that our traditional way of making people Catholic needs to be reconsidered. We need to look at the evangelicals and see what they do. When we do that, we may discover that there is something we can learn from them.

In these churches, the declaration that Jesus is Lord is meant to be an expression of a person’s commitment. It’s like somebody being offered knowledge of a person and consciously accepting to enter into a relationship with that person and establish personal ties.

This is what holds people in these evangelical churches. I think we should not just label it emotionalism and so discard it. Religion must be about relationship.

So what must the Catholic Church do?

The danger facing the Catholic Church in Africa is that we just feed people with a few notions: Who is God? What is the Trinity? What is a sacrament?

These definitions can be learned by heart and just repeated to anybody who asks questions. Unfortunately, this sometimes happens in parts of Africa.

When I go on pastoral visits and the parish priest or the catechist says he has prepared some candidates for me to confirm, I like to meet them. So the night before I do a confirmation I do some teaching with the kids. I take them through a more personal explanation of faith.

We need to rediscover a basis which is essentially about personal relationship.

How many seminarians does Ghana have?

We have 258 seminarians in Ghana at the moment and only a staff of 15. The ratio is big and the tendency is therefore for staff just to teach. The extra effort to get to know the students is sometimes difficult.

Why do you invite students in their diaconate year to live with you?

I started this 10 years ago. I get to know them and they get to size me up. I have the bursar come in to introduce them to the financial system of the diocese, the canonist leads them through tribunal practices, and the archivist explains how to gather data. The students are also taught to drive. Initially, they were apprehensive, and didn’t know why I was inviting them.

How has this system helped?

There have been a few occasions when I have picked up signals from students that have been useful to me later in dealing with them as priests. If I pick up signals that are really serious, I call them in for a chat. I also ask them their spirituality and prayer life.

I tell them it’s not enough to pray the breviary. They are encouraged to develop a personal prayer life and deepen their spirituality.

It’s important that Christianity goes beyond the theology and terms that we have learned to something more relational.

How adequate was your formation?

I did my theology in the United States, in the seminary of the Conventual Franciscans. Studying with religious, and the spirituality of St. Francis, challenged me and changed the way I look at things.

In what way?

During my year as a deacon, I lived in an inner-city parish in Albany, N.Y. The neighborhood had once been populated by Italians and Irish, but when I was there in the late 1970s it was mainly poor blacks and Hispanic, who were not particularly Catholic.

Part of my task was to interest people in the life of the Church. To do this, I went stoop-to-stoop and door-to-door. I had to think about what you did with an empty church and a population that does not respond to the Church.

So what did you do?

Like with all evangelization, you have to pray and witness a lot. Gradually, this prayer and witnessing began to pay off. When I went to some black churches, they wanted me to join as a minister.

What can Catholics learn from Pentecostal churches?

At the last meeting I attended of the Council for Christian Unity, we discussed the threat of Pentecostals in Latin America. I said that we need to celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit more: prophecy, healing, intercessory prayer and all of that. This is one of the things the Pentecostals do.

I think there is only one formula for being a Church, only one formula for being Christians. And that formula is the one we read about in the Acts of the Apostles: a group of people living in the power of the Holy Spirit and the strength of the Word.

In some places we need to see how we can activate the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

How do you think this should be done?

These churches set up ministries for intercession, ministries of prophecy and so on. These gifts are bestowed on members of the Church and they need to be exercised. Priests must take the lead here.

How are relations in Ghana between Catholics and other Christians?

Initially, the Pentecostals and evangelicals in Ghana were suspicious of the Catholic Church. But we now have a group called Conference of Religions for Peace, made up of Catholics, mainstream Protestant churches and Muslims.

I was the chairman of it until last year. I have also spoken at prayer breakfasts of the Full Gospel, which consists of businessmen, some of them Catholics.

What are your hopes for next year’s Synod on the Bible?

We priests and bishops need to recognize that many of us are products of notional Christianity. Quite a sizable number entered seminary, received formation and got ordained, but might not have experienced any personal conversion. When that is the case, we are missing something that is very basic for the life of a Christian.

The Bible was produced by religious people and meant to inspire other religious people. It was produced by people of faith. So we should endeavor to make the Bible serve its purpose and inspire faith. This is what I hope the synod can achieve.

And what are your hopes for the special synod for Africa in 2009?

After the last synod for Africa in 1994, many diocesan synods were held. And, at least in Ghana, they all contained the word evangelization. But, at the end of the day, how many really did evangelize?

It can be talked about in an academic way and not really considered something that has to be lived. The Word of God must produce conversions, and conversions lead to witness.

At the second synod for Africa, we must look at how we are a Church in Africa. Rwanda was supposed to 99% Catholic. How could it end up with genocide?

We need to realize that notional Christianity has probably been too strong. Instead, we need a radical conversion that will make the presence of God real and personal for each one of us.

Greg Watts writes from London.